Ichiro Uchimura Hanyu Icho
Clockwise from upper left: Ichiro Suzuki, Kohei Uchimura, Kaori Icho, Yuzuru Hanyu

The 24-year old figure skater walked into a private room in Saitama Super Arena, the television to his left showing clips of the World Finals Figure Skating Championship that had just ended on the evening of March 23, 2019.

“I lost! I can’t believe it (“Maketa yo, kuyashii!),” said Yuzuru Hanyu. He glanced at the television set which showed his rival and winner of the world championship, American Nathan Chen. “How do I beat that?”

Despite Hanyu’s incredible free program and brief hold of first place, Chen’s was better.

“I really wanted to win when I was skating,” Hanyu stated. “I think I did my best, but the problem is that a figure skating competition consists of two days, and I lost both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”

Chen is a brilliant young skater, who has proven his metal by defending his world championship. But Hanyu will not go down without a fight.

Those who have followed Hanyu even a little know that he is not losing confidence. He may in fact be steeling himself for the greatest competition he has faced. Battling and overcoming an ongoing ligament injury to his right ankle, Hanyu won gold in PyeongChang last February, and the Cup of Russia in November. The flames of his competitive spirit have been fanned by Chen, and he’s out to take figure skating to the next level, which should surprise no one.

Hanyu is a living legend.

What’s incredible is that he is not alone here. We in Japan have been blessed, recent witnesses to once-in-a-century global talents in a wide variety of sports – four of them to be exact:

  • Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating)
  • Ichiro Suzuki (baseball)
  • Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics)
  • Kaori Icho (wrestling)

Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating): The Sendai native is a two-time world champion, has broken the world record in figure skating scores eighteen times, and is the first person since Dick Button did so in 1948 to win individual gold in two consecutive Olympiads. Can he do the unthinkable at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and win an unprecedented third Olympic championship? I wouldn’t bet against him yet.

Ichiro Suzuki (baseball): After 28 years of professional baseball, the athlete known as Ichiro retired last week amidst adoring fans at the opening season matches between his Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s. No one has had more hits in professional baseball than Ichiro (4,367), and in the Major Leagues in America, he set the season hit record in 2004 with 262 hits, surpassing George Sisler’s record that stood for 84 years. His speed and defense made him a threat to steal a base as well as hits and runs in the field. There’s an overwhelming consensus that Ichiro will be the first player enshrined in the baseball hall of fames of both Japan and America. His love of the game, his training regimen and his flare for the dramatic will live on forever.

Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics): He is called King Kohei. The native of Nagasaki is the only gymnast to win all-around gold in every major title in a four-year Olympic cycle….twice. In other words, Uchimura won the world championship and Olympic gold from 2009 to 2016. You may as well tack on his silver medal in the all-arounds at the 2012 London Olympics, and call it a decade of dominance. Calling him the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), as many do, is not hyperbole. As Uchimura is 30, it is unlikely that his dominance will continue at Tokyo 2020.  But he might be there, giving us all still a chance to glimpse greatness.

Kaori Icho (wrestling): There is another Japanese GOAT – a woman from Japan named Kaori Icho. The freestyle wrestler from Aomori, Icho has won an unprecedented and incredible four straight Olympic championships since women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. In fact, she’s the first female in any sport to win an individual gold in four straight Olympiads. Through that period, Icho had won 189 straight matches, a 13-year streak that ended in January, 2016 to a wrestler ten years her junior, only to re-start the streak and take her fourth gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is indeed the best female wrestler ever.

We in Japan have been most fortunate in recent years to live among living legends.

Advertisements

Yuzuru Hanyu PyeongChang long program

There is something otherworldly about Yuzuru Hanyu, the first man since Dick Button in 1952 to win back-to-back gold medals in the Olympic men’s single figure skating competition.

He is tall and thin, his long arms and legs moving with magical fluidity. I’m reminded of the aliens concocted by Seven Spielberg for the end of his film, “AI”, long, thin limbed beings that moved with fluid majesty.

Hanyu’s extraterrestrial trick is that he can make a dance ensemble of his entire body – his head, torso, legs, arms and hands seem to me to be in constant motion, sometimes quick, sometimes languorous, but always in concert.

There does not appear to be any wasted movement – the snap of his wrists on specific beats, to the whirling-yet-controlled dervish he makes of his arms as he rotates down the ice.

To my untrained eye, Adam Rippon was equally masterful in his movements, while Nathan Chen, while phenomenal in his stamina and command of the quads, would often skate for a full second or two with little body movement only to build speed for a big jump.

Hanyu rarely would waste an opportunity to move his limbs in meaningful ways, closer to what a trained dancer, whose every muscle is in tune with the music, can do on a wooden floor.

Yuzuru Hanyu PyeongChang long program 2
Yuzuru Hanyu competes in the men’s free skate on Saturday. | AP

What convinces people of Hanyu’s authenticity is his total body and emotional commitment to the drama – from his breathing at the start of his skate, to his ability to hit key beats in the music, and that devil-may-care grin at the end that says, “I had it all along.”

There were many incredible performances at the men’s single figure skating championships today at the Gangneung Ice Arena. But Hanyu’s ability to blend high-performance athleticism and sublime dance is out of this world.

Yuzuru Hanyu and Pooh

It rained Pooh.

And that meant Hanyu was back.

Ever since 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan went down painfully after injuring his right ankle in October last year, his legions of fans in Japan and around the world have been collectively holding their breath.

 

TOPSHOT-FSKATE-JPN-HANYU
TOPSHOT – This picture taken on November 9, 2017 shows Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu reacting as he falls after missing his jump during a practice of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating 2017/2018 NHK Trophy in Osaka. Japan Skating Federation announced the Olympic champion Hanyu withdraw from the NHK Trophy after injuring his right ankle. / AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS / STR / Japan OUT

 

Would the world’s greatest figure skater be able to return to the ice in time for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Nobody really knew because he had hidden himself from the probing Japanese media in Toronto, under the guidance of his coaches and Olympic medalists, Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson.

In fact, the current World Champion was not even in South Korea in the first few days of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and confessed at his press conference on February 14 that he “had a little bit of uncertainty.” For a man of few words, that’s telling.

Yuzuru Hanyu PyeongChang short program 1
Yuzuru Hanyu performs his short program on Friday at the Pyeongchang Olympics at Gangneung Ice Arena. | AFP-JIJI

And yet, as you know now, Hanyu nailed his short routine, scoring the second highest short program score ever – 111.68 points. More importantly, his 4.1 point lead over Javier Fernandez is even greater than his lead when he won gold in Sochi four years earlier.

More significantly, he landed a series of quads, including a a quad toe followed hard upon by a triple toe, all landing on his right leg, after which the NBC color commentator said in mock disbelief, “What injury?”

Hanyu was indeed back….back for more gold. And not just the golden fur of his favorite fuzzy character, Winnie the Pooh.

TOPSHOT-FSKATE-JPN-HANYU

On October 31, Evgeni Plushenko stated that Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan would likely win gold in the men’s individual figure skating competition at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

On November 9, Hanyu fell awkwardly after attempting a four-revolution jump during a training session, and announced the next day that ligament damage to his ankle would prevent him from participating in the NHK Trophy competition that weekend, a tournament Hanyu had won the previous two years, as well as the Grand Prix Final, which Hanyu has won the past four years.

You can see the painful fall below at about the 30 second mark of the video below.

 

The question is, more significantly, will the reigning Olympic champion be able to defend his championship at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics? According to this analysis from The Sports Examiner, men’s figure skating has seen a revolution in the quadruple jump that will continue to put pressure on Hanyu.

Yuzuru Hanyu has prided himself on trying to keep up with the recent quadruple jump outburst in men’s figure skating, an explosion in numbers and types of quads since 2015 for which the Japanese star credits China’s Jin Boyang as having been the spark.

When Hanyu won a second world title last year, he alluded to the quad exploits of Jin, Nathan Chen of the United States and Shoma Uno of Japan – all of whom have pushed the jump revolution – when he said, “I am trying to keep up with many of the strengths of the other skaters.”

In this article of Globetrotting, Philip Hersh explains that it may not be necessary for Hanyu to keep pace with the other quadruple jumpers as his overall game has made him a champion in the past, and in fact, his desire to try new things may get in the way of an Olympic championship defense.

The trick will be convincing Hanyu to rein himself in. His desire to meet the quad standards set by rivals speaks to a fierce and admirable competitive spirit.

“Yuzu told me that what motivates and inspires him is trying new things and challenging himself,” Tracy Wilson, who helps Brian Orser in coaching Hanyu at the skater’s Toronto training base, said in a Tuesday text message. “He told me that he wants to push the sport and this approach keeps it interesting for him.

“This has been his stance since the beginning of last season when he decided to add the (quad) loop. He didn’t need the loop last year and did it on his way to record-setting performances.”

Hersh emphasized that if Hanyu is able to recover in time for the 2018 Winter Games, he may need to ignore his competition and their adoration for a particularly arduous technique called the “quad lutz.” If Hanyu recovers his time and finds the right balance of athleticism and form, he could be the first man to win consecutive gold medals in individual figure skating since Dick Button did so in 1952. If not….

Hanyu said at Autumn Classic he was bothered by knee problems that affected his quad loop.  He kept working on the lutz, and it was one of the two quads he landed cleanly last month in Russia (in what International Skating Union fact sheets said were five planned attempts; one became a triple, another a double.)

At this point, apparent risk for continuing with the quad lutz substantially outweighs the reward, which seems essentially to be personal satisfaction for Hanyu. Persisting may not only endanger him but the sport itself, for a 2018 Olympics with Hanyu in subpar condition – or without him entirely – would be diminished.

jordan spieth masters-champion

TWELVE – Jordan Spieth Wins 1/2 of Golf’s Grand Slam: Spieth, who won the US Open and the Masters, reminds fans of a young Tiger Woods. He and other golfers will make their Olympic debuts in Rio.

usain-bolt-1440338045-800

ELEVEN – Sprinter Usain Bolt Returns to Form: Bolt won the 100m, 200m and 4x100m at the World Championships in August, overcoming injuries and slower times up till then, as well as rival Justin Gatlin. Bolt has six gold medals, three each in the 100m, 200m and 4×100 relay at the 2008 Games in Beijing, as well as the 2012 Games in London.

yuzuru hanyu

TEN – Yuzuru Hanyu Breaks Records: Gold medalist in mens’ singles figure skating in 2014, Hanyu skated better than anyone has ever skated in 2015,finishing the year by breaking the world record for short programs first at the NHK Trophy tournament in November, and then again in the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona in December.

See this link for 13 through fifteen.

Just when you thought he couldn’t get any better, Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu gave a performance for the ages on Saturday night. For the second night in a row, Hanyu established a new world record on the way to victory at the NHK Trophy. Not just one, but two.

Source: Hanyu smashes two more world records en route to amazing NHK Trophy triumph | The Japan Times